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Crime News Serial Killers

How The Gainesville Ripper, Who Terrorized A College Town In 1990, Was Caught

When five young people were viciously murdered in the small college town of Gainesville, Florida everyone wanted answers. Who was the killer stalking the quiet university streets? 

By Leah Carroll
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This is the second of a two part series on the Gainesville Ripper, a killer who terrorized a college town. Read the first part on E! here

As the city of Gainesville and students at the University of Florida reacted to the brutal 1990 serial murders of Sonja Larson, 18, Christina Powell, 17, Sonja Larson, 18, and Manuel Taboada and Tracy Paules, both 23, fear gripped the small college town. Who could be responsible for these gruesome killings? And when would that person strike next? 

As the panic escalated, Gainesville police announced in August that they had a potential suspect in custody — an 18-year-old UF freshman named Ed Humphrey. The Tampa Bay Times reported that Humphrey had been seen by neighbors wandering the streets carrying "long knives." And his physical appearance fueled speculation about the teen's guilt. His face was covered in scars he sustained in two car accidents and the lithium he took to control his mood swings left him looking swollen and unwell. 

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Following an altercation with his grandmother, police arrested him for battery and placed him in jail on a $1 million bond. But looks were deceiving. Even as Humphrey sat in a jail cell, his face plastered across local and tabloid media, law enforcement already had a different suspect, someone with a long history of violent criminal activity: Danny Rolling.

Rolling, a 36-year-old drifter who'd come to Gainesville from Shreveport, Louisiana had been camping in wooded areas around the city. This was a detail that, as ABC News reported, would become extremely important. On the day of Christina Hoyt's murder, an officer responding to call about a bank robbery saw a suspicious man walk into the woods. While the man eluded him, officers did discover his campsite and among his possessions was the bag used in the bank robbery, stained red from the dye pack the bank teller had slipped into it. Also a the site was a screwdriver similar the one used to pry open the locked doors of the five young murder victims. They also found a tape player with a cassette inside. While they took all the items into custody, nobody would listen to the cassette until a tip came in that broke the case wide open. 

Cindy Juracich knew Danny Rolling from her hometown of Shreveport. When she heard about the murders in Gainesville she immediately suspected Rolling was involved — and that he'd been involved in another murder as well. In 1989, William Grissom, 55, his daughter Julie, 24, and her 8-year old son Sean, were killed in their Shreveport home. Julie's body had been posed in a similarly gruesome manner to the victims in Gainesville. Blood tests from the Louisiana and Florida crime scenes were not a match to Ed Humphrey. But they were a match to Danny Rolling, who had been in a Marion County jail since September for robbing a grocery store about an hour away from Gainesville. 

With the blood type match and the realization that the campsite they'd found earlier belonged to Rolling, investigators finally listened to the cassette they'd found at the scene. Rolling was an aspiring country music singer and the lyrics on the tape were disturbing. “You’re a killer, a drifter gone insane … You’re a rebel no one can tame,” sang Rolling in a song titled ”Mystery Rider." The entirety of the tape can be heard on Oxygen's "Mark Of A Killer: Posed To Kill." Most usefully, Rolling said his full name on the tape. And most eerily, he signed off telling the listener he "had something he had to do." Investigators suspect Manuel Taboada and Tracy Paules were murdered soon after Rolling left that cryptic message. 

In November of 1991, Rolling was charged with the five Gainesville murders and in1994 he was sentenced to death, reported the Florida Times-Union. On October 25, 2006, he was put to death by lethal injection. In his final moments he chose not to acknowledge or speak to the families of his victims, but instead sang a gospel song. But shortly before his execution he did confess to the murders of William Grissom, 55, his daughter Julie, 24, and Grissom's 8-year old son Sean. The Miami Herald reported that Rolling told his spiritual advisor, “It was my hand that took those precious lights out of this ole dark world. With all my heart & soul would I could bring them back.”

Ed Humphrey was eventually exonerated of any connection to the murders, but the notoriety of his arrest was difficult to overcome for many years. The Orlando Sentinel reported that he graduated from The University of Central Florida in 2000. 

"Ed does blame himself to some degree for not taking his medicine back then," his lawyer Donald Lykkebak told The Sentinel. "He was completely incoherent. But believe me, Ed takes his medicine as faithfully as anyone who is bipolar [manic depressive] in the country."

As for the families of Sonja Larson, Christina Powell, Christa Hoyt, Tracy Paules and Manuel Taboada, they are still struggling to understand the brutality that took their loved ones away at such a young age. 

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Ricky Paules, Manuel's mother told the Miami Herald: “Hatred. Very, very bitter throughout the whole thing. I saw his breath go out of him. . . . We waited for this time. And justice was done.”

Christa Hoyt's stepmother had a more complicated reaction. 

“I’m a nurse, and I’ve seen my patients die. And they died a much more horrific death than what this man suffered through, that’s for sure. He relaxed, went to sleep, did not feel anything,” Dianna Hoyt, stepmother of victim Christa Hoyt, told The Miami Herald. “Today’s been a very surreal day for me. It’s like a dream, walking through a dream.”

Or a nightmare. 

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